Re-re-re-polish or “How to Handle Rejection”

Authorial Essentials
Authorial Essentials

It’s a question that comes up after a certain amount of time in the writing experience. “As an author, how do you handle rejection?”
I suggest tea to calm the mind, or maybe some coffee to fuel the inevitable rewrite. If you prefer a beer and a shot of Wild Turkey while you kick yourself for your failure, that’s your prerogative.
We all talk about it. I think it’s a strong motivation to form writing groups. In many ways, success or failure has less to do with talent than it does with tenacity. Because no matter how polished your prose, how witty your dialogue, how insightful your exposition, you are going to be faced at some point with a letter or email saying “Sorry, but your piece doesn’t fit our needs at this time.” There aren’t a lot of guarantees in this business, kid, but that’s one of them. Your future as a writer hinges in no small part on learning to accept and move through rejections.

A writing group is a great start. Think of it as group counselling. A good writing group is a support system that has few equals, because like all good group counselling, you’re in the company of people who’ve been there. It’s too easy to doubt yourself when you’re isolated. But when you’re sitting across a coffeehouse table from four other people who also just had their genuinely great short story turned away from yet another market, it takes the sting out.

But caffeine abuse with friends won’t get you in the pages of Asimov’s.

The rejection of a story from any market tells you two things in varying degrees. One, that while it might be a good story, it wasn’t a good fit for the editors of that market at that time. And two, maybe your perfect little gem needs another look.

Hurts, doesn’t it?

The truth is, no matter how much work you put into it, no matter how much you love it, there’s a damn good chance that your story isn’t perfect. And you know what? That’s okay. Art is subjective, so no one is going to have that same idea of what perfection means. The danger lies in complacency. You want your story to be good. Like, GOOD! But too often I feel newer authors stop revising at good ENOUGH.

Writing is an acquired skill. It’s something that develops the more we do it. I have stories I wrote six years ago that I loved at the time and I would now be embarrassed to see published. Not that I could get them published in their current state. Yes, they were likely the best representation of my skills as a writer at the time, but I’ve been working at this penmonkey crap for years, and I’m better than I was. Practice does that.

Every time you send a story out, it should be as polished as you can make it.

And if it gets rejected, give it another critical look. Treat the rejection as a chance to revise and really LOOK at it. Read it out loud to yourself. Read it backwards, one paragraph at a time starting from the end. Your changes might be small. Maybe you over-used a word. Maybe there’s a sensory detail that you could stand to add. Maybe you have a long sentence that makes for better pacing as two short sentences. Or maybe you can stand to cut that first thousand words and condense them into a sentence or two later in the story.

If you can’t change a word, then congratulations! You’ve written a perfect story. Or, at least as perfect of a story as you can write at that point in your career. So find another market and send that baby back out into the world.

And if it comes back again?

Look at it again.

Refuse to settle for “good enough.”

*Ok, a bit of a disclaimer here. If you’re under the gun for a submission deadline and you have the choice of sending it in as “good enough” or not submitting at all, there’s some wiggle-room here. If you are happy enough with the story that you can see it being published in its current form, and maybe pointing friends, agents, and editors to it, then pull that trigger. Sometimes “good enough” is just that, and you can sell the story and make the necessary fixes before print. But don’t submit a crap story (or one that doesn’t meet the submission call) just for the sake of submitting. 

The key here is not only to keep revising, but keep submitting. Don’t fall into that trap of reworking and reworking and reworking the same story until it’s flawless as an excuse to not send it out.

Don’t let rejection spook you. Don’t give it that much power over you.

As Wayne Gretzky says, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

He should know. He’s the Great One after all.

On that note, I have a novel to fix. Time to put on a pot of coffee.

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