Understanding Literary Rejection 

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It is easy to mistake literary rejection for bad writing. Don’t. The truth is, we all go through rejection. Everyone from David Sedaris to J.K. Rowling to Gillian Flynn to John Green has at one time experienced, usually for long periods of time, the brutal, condescending, harsh crush of that word, “unfortunately.”

Externally, these rejections, these emotionally perceived I’m-not-good-enoughs, arrive in the impolite shape of form letters. “Dear sir, thank you so much for your submission. Unfortunately…” These letters injure writers for several obvious reasons but for one less obvious one: ego. All serious writers carry a great big bag of ego around with them. We have to. In order for you to believe you have “something to say” to the world, you must hold that ego bag constantly over your shoulder. Writing a novel or short story or memoir is like a fat heroin shot of ego to the arm.

At one time, I used to let these form letters get me down. When I’d see them, whether hard copy in the mail or on my computer, I’d sit back in my chair, sigh deeply, twiddle my pen in my fingers, and take a walk, thinking deeply about what I’d done wrong, why I wasn’t a good writer, why I’d ultimately failed (again), why I was doomed.

But then, in early 2012, I received a rejection form letter from The Sun, a well known literary magazine, with a nice blue-inked handwritten note saying how strong the voice in my story was. They turned the tale down, but man oh man did that reinvigorate my writing and my submitting. And, for the first time, I felt like I could do it, like I could scale the invisible writing fences that had prevented me for so long from succeeding.

A few months later, after working on a story I’d written called Tightrope, a “slice-of-life” saga that’d started as a 30-page piece and been cut down to 13 pages with the help of my workshop group, I had my first piece of writing published in a small online press. I was thrilled. From there, more and more of my work began to be published in various literary magazines and journals, as I continued to learn the art of penning publishable prose.

I write about this and tell readers because, if you’re a writer, especially a new one, get ready for a lot of rejection. Writing is hard. Many feel differently and I’ve heard many a famous author comment that writers shouldn’t complain, that they have it easy. I disagree, for many reasons. A lonely profession, writing requires drudging through countless hours solo in your apartment, staring at a screen, willing your fingers to move fluently across the keyboard, pumping out a story or The Great American Novel.

But the truth is, you write that story or that novel, and then you reread it and wait and reread it again and self-edit and maybe even hire a freelance book editor (like me) and then guess what: It still gets rejected. It becomes easier and easier to begin believing there’s some secret society out there, primarily in Manhattan, that only publishes certain writers’ writing, and that you will never be one of those in the Sacred Circle and therefore, you might as well give up now, save everybody the hassle, save the paper, get a real job. (Most writers have fulltime jobs anyway.)

You’re forgetting two key things: All writers go through this, and All [Rejection] Roads Lead to Publication. Just about zero writers have ever gone through zero rejection. Ask the best, the most well known, like Stephen King. In his memoir, On Writing, King comments, “The nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.”

J.K. Rowling said this: “Often, you have to fail as a writer before you write that bestselling novel or ground-breaking memoir. If you’re failing as a writer—which it definitely feels like when you’re struggling to write regularly or can’t seem to earn a living as a freelance writer—maybe you need to take a long-term perspective.”

Which is a perfect segue into my second point: All Rejection Roads Lead to Publication. Rowling makes the statement about taking the “long-term perspective.” Absolutely. A longtime backpacker and mountain hiker, in 2013 I peaked Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the continental United States. At 14,500 feet, we (my buddy and I) tackled the beast in one day. To put this in perspective, that’s 22 miles round trip, 8,000 feet elevation gain, and 14 hours on the trail, beginning before it even got light out.

Serious writing—meaning long-term career writing—is not like hiking Mount Whitney in one day. It’s more like hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (six months from Canada to Mexico if you do it in one shot) in segments over a lifespan. Jenny Milchman, a friend of mine and incredibly talented author, has three books out now with a major publisher. But before she got published, she went through two literary agents and 11 years (you heard me right; eleven!) before she finally landed that deal.

My point? Never give up. Allow rejection letters to guide you instead of destroy you. Let them make you stronger, not weaker. They only have as much power as you give to them, like a bully in high school. It’s up to you. The most successful and often revered authors are the ones who stuck it out, pushed through the slush, and came out the other side. Easier said than done.

But it is doable.

Here are a few websites with great info on rejection and famous authors who’ve gone through it!

1)    http://www.aerogrammestudio.com/2013/06/15/12-famous-writers-on-literary-rejection/

2)    http://thewritepractice.com/you-will-be-rejected/

3)    http://jennymilchman.com/jenny

4)    http://www.clickhole.com/article/8-rejection-letters-publishers-sent-famous-authors-3084

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Michael Mohr is a published writer, a former literary agent’s assistant, and a freelance book editor. His fiction and nonfiction can be found at the following: Fiction Magazines, Alfie Dog Press, Tincture, MacGuffin, Aaduna, Mountain Tales Press, Milvia Street Art & Literary Journal, Flash: The International Short Short Story Magazine; and more. He has been a guest blogger on the Kimberley Cameron & Associates [literary agency] website and on Writer’s Digest. He writes a weekly Friday blog about writing, editing and publishing.

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