You Can’t Please Them All


I’m pretty sure there is not one writer out there who has never been rejected. You’ll read all the time about how Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was turned down by twelve publishing houses, or that Carrie was rejected over thirty times. Everyone is told “no” from time to time. While you’re working on perfecting your voice and building your world and developing believable characters, you’d better be giving a moment of thought to what happens after you send your manuscript out into the world. The chances are high that it won’t be accepted the first time. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll never be published. But your chances increase with the way you handle rejection.

1. Don’t take the rejection personally.
If you’re writing with the intention of selling your work, you have to remember that you are selling a product. Imagine you are in a clothing store, shopping for just the right shirt for a party you’re attending soon. You know you want red silk with black buttons, so when the sales clerk tries to interest you in a purple velvet shirt with rhinestone buttons instead, you turn it down. It wasn’t what you had in mind. The sales clerk doesn’t throw the shirt on the ground and quit her job, does she? Of course not – she brings you something else instead. Now, imagine the editor, sitting at a desk, facing two hundred stories. He can’t accept them all, just as you could not buy all the shirts in the store. It has nothing to do with you as a person. Cry if you need to, but only for the time it takes to walk from the mailbox back to the computer.

2. If the editor has offered critique of the work, take it to heart.
Now and again, an editor will like a story almost enough to buy it. When this happens, he will take time out from that huge pile of submissions to jot a quick note on your rejection letter, telling you what you could do to make the story something he might buy next time. This is a big deal – it means you nearly made it. You could read his suggestions, then tear up his letter and fling the pieces skyward while cursing his eyes for daring to tell you, the writer, how the story might be improved. Or you could hurry back to the keyboard, sit down and play with the changes he suggested. Even if the changes don’t suit you for some reason, at least now you know what sort of story that editor might be willing to pay money for. I sent a story to Talebones once, and received a lovely note from the editor, Patrick Swenson. He liked the story very much, enough to write me a note telling me it was a bit gory for his taste. Since the story depended on that aspect, I couldn’t do much toward changing it to suit him. But his note told me what NOT to send him in the future, and that was a big help.

3. Send the rejected story to someone else.
Remember that story that Talebones didn’t buy? It sold a few weeks later to Outer Darkness, and became my first semi-pro sale. If I had thrown in the towel because someone else didn’t want the story, it would still be sitting in the bottom of a desk drawer. Just because one editor said no doesn’t mean all of them will. Give the story a chance to find the right person.

4. Have something else in the works at all times.
As soon as you send out your novel or story, you should begin working on something else. It’ll make the wait time seem shorter, for one thing. For another, you’ll be more emotionally connected to the new work, so if the submission is rejected, it won’t hurt quite as much. You’ll have enough distance to see the submission without those rosy glasses we wear when a story is new.

5. Behave like a grownup, even if you’d rather pitch a hissy fit.
Last week editor Sean Wallace posted a request on his Livejournal, advising writers to refrain from responding to rejections with teasing emails detailing the story’s glorious sale to some other magazine. I can’t imagine what drives some people to do that. After all, it’s not as if they’ll never want to submit to that editor again, right? The writing world may be fun and exciting, but it’s not a kindergarten playground.
Along the same line, don’t write back to the editor telling her how stupid she is for turning you down. Again, you may someday want to try that editor again, and she is going to remember. I’m a Southern girl born and raised, and I can pitch a hissy the likes of which might make Scarlett O’Hara blush. I submitted a novel to a new writers’ competition some years ago. It did not win. When the notification arrived, I burst into tears and called a writing friend. I ranted and raved and called the judges all manner of ugly names until I was exhausted, at which point my friend calmly told me to get over it and go write something else.

Wise words, my friend.


11 comments to You Can’t Please Them All

  • >>I ranted and raved and called the judges all manner of ugly names until I was exhausted, at which point my friend calmly told me to get over it and go write something else.

    It wasn’t me. I *know* it wasn’t me. Right? Not me?
    Great post, Misty. Sometimes we writers get caught up in the *art* and forget that it’s a product, which has to sell to the largest number of people, not a select few.

  • Good advice, Misty. I especially like #4. I’ve wasted years–literally–waiting for books to land instead of getting on with something else. When you are a relatively new writer I think it’s very hard to create the kind of distance from our work that much of your post suggests, so when we finally finish something we want to just sit back and wait for the adoring fanmail from editors (and the checks). This just makes the time pass slower and the disappointment all the more accute if things don’t pan out. Move on to a new project. After all, if you fancy being a profesional writer, this is good training for how the rest of your life will be.

  • Faith, no, I inflicted that particular hissy fit on Norman. Now that you know that, you can probably hear his voice telling me to get over it. *grin*

  • AH… Norman! Yeah, I can hear it well.

  • Great post, Misty. I would add from my own perspective that none of what you say here is easy to do. To this day, with a dozen novels and several published short stories under my belt, I’m still thrown by a rejection. It still hurts, it still can ruin an entire day of writing from me. I’m better than I was earlier in my career, but rejection is never easy. Thanks for giving us some common sense advice for dealing with it.

  • You are spot on, Misty. If you want to be in this business, you have to develop a thick skin. You can be thin-skinned in private, of course (and most of us are), but when it comes to dealing with editors, publishers, agents, etc, you have to take your lumps quietly and move on.

  • Well, I had my first rejections in 2009. Mid-way through the year I realized I’d never submitted anything. I was actually taking a break between the backstory novel and returning to the WIP and was writing a few short stories. So I sent out a few that I thought were the most polished. They all received rejections.

    While I wasn’t happy about it, I was kind of okay with it. The short story medium is much harder for me than novels. But I liked what I had written. It felt good to get those submissions out there. One of the things I’m going to try and do is intersperse my novel writing with short stories. I think it will be a good exercise and learning tool and provide that sometimes needed break and distance from the WIP.

    I also, being an IT guy, built a simple database to track submissions so I know where and when I sent them and how long responses took.

  • David said, …none of what you say here is easy to do…I’m still thrown by a rejection. It still hurts, it still can ruin an entire day of writing from me.

    Oh David, you’re right. And not just a rejection of a submitted story, but a bad review or even a con turning me down as a guest, all those kinds of rejections are hard. I don’t think we ever reach the point where it doesn’t hurt at least a little. No, it’s not easy, but handling rejection properly is vital to becoming a professional.

  • Mia Scozzi

    It seems like one of the biggest things to surviving in the writing world is developing a thick skin. Thanks Misty for a few more tips on how to do this, and be professional about it. 🙂

  • I’m lucky (??) in that I have an extensive background in publishing peer-reviewed scientific articles. Fiction rejection letters are nothing compared to what comes out of the peer-review process!

    Not that I wouldn’t rather get an acceptance, of course, but my standards are apparently so different. The (wanna-be?) authors you see occasionally whining online? I so want to send them some of the letters I’ve received… even the acceptances would probably traumatize them.

    I truly don’t mean to belittle the pain of rejection, but this is a profession. Be professional (after the initial ranting, privately, and the requisite adult beverage of choice).

  • but a bad review or even a con turning me down as a guest,

    Actually kinda like to see some of you guys hit MarCon sometime here in Columbus, Ohio.

    I was rejected once for an anthology, but the advice I got sent back from that short story did help. I wasn’t even aware there was too much passive voice in it till I went back through it after the rejection.