Rejection is part of writing. It hurts when you open that e-mail or envelope and read, “Sorry…we don’t have a place for your work.”
It takes elephant hide and steely nerve to be a writer, and yet you’re not a real writer until you have been rejected.
Some rejections are downright rude, like the one who returned my original query letter (this was in the ’90s when we still queried via snail mail) and scrawled “NOT THIS ONE!” across the page. Really? Was that necessary? Did he not consider that I already doubted my ability as a writer? Even those of us who have published work suffer from imposter syndrome. For a new writer, this kind of rejection can end a potentially rich writing career.
Maybe this guy had just broken up with his wife, or he had a hernia, or he had a sunburn. Whatever his problem, I crossed his publication out in my Writer’s Market with a giant X in Sharpie marker and I moved on.
Not all rejections are unkind. In fact, I framed my best rejection letter.
The handwritten note reads, “Too bad we don’t have enough space for all that we love. Keep trying. B.” Isn’t that wonderful? It was written by the late Betty Shipley, 1996-1998 Oklahoma Poet Laureate. I never met her, but when I thanked Ms. Shipley for the rejection, she sent me an autographed copy of her chapbook Somebody Say Amen. When I learned she died about a year later, I cried as if mourning a relative.
One poet told me as soon she opens a rejection notice, she immediately redirects her poems to elsewhere. “If three editors say no, I reevaluate them.”
Embrace the Rejection. It’s not personal.
When Jeff Kleinman, of Folio Literary, read a draft of The Art of Racing In The Rain, he felt a visceral reaction as he read the submission on the train between Virginia and New York City.
“I remember I started crying in Pennsylvania…by the time I finished the book I was weeping,” and his hands had gone numb.
Wouldn’t we all like to have a story like this? Where an agent or editor is emotionally wrecked by our work?
So, in a way. it is personal.
In Stephen King’s book On Writing, he claims there are three levels of writers: adequate, good and great.
The same categories can apply to rejection letters. Sometimes rejections happen within minutes of hitting the Send key. But those are not the lowest rejections; The lowest level is when you never get a reply.
Adequate rejections generally contain wording such as, Dear Author, this is not for us but good luck in your career. These often arrive within a few days, and over the course of your career, you will receive hundreds of these.
The good rejection is one where the editor or agent requests to see a chapter or two. Something in your letter beyond your summary ignited interest in the project. The reasons for a no may be infinite: the publisher has just released a similar book, the work doesn’t fit their model, or the stakes in the story aren’t high enough. At least you know someone has read your material.
Perhaps the best, yet most disheartening, rejection is when an agent or editor requests a full manuscript, yet still passes on the project. This is a great rejection because a stranger was interested enough in your words to take the time to read them. And these rejections often contain specific suggestions for how to make it better, or sometimes the name of an agent or editor who may be interested in it. (Publishing is a small town and most know each other.) At this point your work is closer to finding a permanent home.
In The Fire In Fiction, agent Donald Maass writes, “passionate writing makes every word a shaft of light, every sentence a crack of thunder, every scene a tectonic shift.” In a sense, every story is a love story because the writer must be in love with its content in order to make it work. If you get as far as a full request it means the reader almost fell in love. And it means you’re close to someone else loving it as much as you do.
The odds are against us. Yet I hear the song Don’t Stop Believing every time I take another chance.
Writing and querying are not for the faint of heart. Be brave and send your work out. Make 2022 a year of Yes.
— By Laura Moe
Laura Moe is the author of three novels, the first of which, Breakfast With Neruda, received 100 rejections before an editor fell in love with it. She is board president of EPIC Group Writers. See EPIC’s events page for upcoming workshops. She is currently revising her fourth novel.