"What Do You Do When Someone Rejects Your Story?"

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 3.618% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Got an email from someone today who asked:
“I’m four chapters deep in my first novel, and I’ve never done this before. I was wondering, if you don’t mind me asking, what do you do when a magazine, or a book publishing company doesn’t accept your work? I mean, I don’t like the idea of spamming it around either, and obviously I’m only going to submit it to companies that seem like a good fit for it, but what if I throw it out in the lake and nobody bites? Do I just set it aside and wait X months? Years? Do I go at it with a broad ax and try to make it more… palatable? Do these companies and magazines ever tell you why a work doesn’t fit with them? Since they receive so many submissions, do they just say ‘no, git gud’?”
This is a pretty common question from new writers, so here’s a big secret in the publishing industry:
You wanna know the main factor that separates Professional Authors from the never-wases?
Professional Authors learn to let rejection roll off their shoulders.
To be a writer is to be rejected. Period. There is no writer you’ve heard of who has never been rejected. They’ve all poured their hearts into a story and seen it come bouncing back, often with an insult tacked onto the end of the rejection.
You’re gonna get rejected by agents. By publishers. And even if you make it past all those hurdles, you’re going to be rejected by readers, some of whom will give you snotty one-star reviews, the vast majority of whom will not even read your book at all. Few people talk about the rejection of “The book didn’t sell,” but hoo boy do tawdry sales feel like a rejection.
Good writers keep writing.
Good writers finish their stories. No excuses. As Elizabeth Bear is so fond of saying, “It’s a draft, it can suck.” Fix it in revisions. That’s where most of the magic happens for most people anyway.
Good writers send it out, as the Viable Paradise workshop‘s motto will tell you, “‘Till hell won’t have it!” Do some minor research to ensure they’re not opposed to your story – don’t send dick stories to Fireside fiction, for example – but since you’re going to rack up all these rejections, why reject yourself?
Send them out as far as you can. Let the editors turn you down, not you.
Sadly, most of them won’t have the time to explain to you why you didn’t fit today. The irony of the publishing business is that by the time a busy editor sends you a note explaining why they didn’t like the story, you were better than 95% of the other submissions. Which is why you seek out criticism from other writers and beta readers.
But here’s what you do with critique, whether that’s from an editor or a beta reader or a bad review:
First, you figure out whether this criticism is trying to rewrite your story to something else that’s not you. Sometimes you’ll get feedback like “Do we really need a lesbian squid romance at the center?” and the whole reason you wrote this story is to explore the world of sapphic squid sexuality, and at that point someone is trying to do violence to your story by turning it into a story you’d actively dislike.
Ignore those people. Your stories are your way of fulfilling your kinks. Take that away and you’ll have a published tale that has your name on the cover and nothing of you in the story.
Everyone else who complains, well, shut up and listen. Don’t tell them what you meant to do, because the way you get better as a writer is to map out the differences between “What you meant them to feel” and “What they actually felt.” Hear where they’re confused, or angry, or bored – they’ll be bored a lot in the beginning – and try to figure out what you can do to make them feel what you want.
(And never forget the deadliest criticism: “It’s okay.” If you hear someone shrug that your story’s good, you have failed. You would by far rather have someone screaming at you How could you write that than the indistinguishable blandness of an okay, because for every person who hates something passionately there is someone who loves it with equal fervor.)
(Though maybe not in the way you intended.)
Anyway. You asked what happens when a publisher rejects your work – which is wise phrasing, because there’s no “if.” They will. Chances are really good that your first book won’t sell, whether you’re selling it to a publisher or putting it into the sea of self-published books on Amazon. Your first book will probably go nowhere. So here’s the most valuable advice, right at the end:
Keep writing.
Maybe your first book sucks, but if you take advice and feedback and learn, your second book will be better. So write a second book. And a third. And a fourth. And – well, I’m infamous for writing seven novels before I finally got my first one published, which is a lot, but that happened because I kept writing all kinds of stuff and didn’t get caught up on any one thing.
If they rejected my first book, I’d make a second. If they rejected my second book, I’d make a third. And I’d get better with every book until someone listened.
As for you? You’ve got a voice.
Keep speaking until people hear you in the way you want to be heard.

2 Comments

  1. Alexis
    May 9, 2016

    Such great advice. I follow Neil Gaiman on Twitter, and I was shocked once when he posted something about feeling down because a poem he’d written was rejected for an anthology. It still blows my mind someone like Neil Gaiman still gets rejections.

  2. Derek
    May 10, 2016

    As a musician, I experience a similar stream of rejections (or simply lack of responses) from reviewers, DJs, etc. The occasional success can make up for a lot of the rejections, but the success:rejection ratio can be emotionally brutal.
    I lean heavily on this blog, and other writers’ blogs*, for consolation. Thanks for addressing the topic, Ferrett.
    *I’ve never run across this sort of thing on musicians’ blogs. I suspect that’s because writers are, for fairly obvious reasons, far more prolific bloggers than musos.

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