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Robert's Rules of Writing #55: Get Rejected

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

Let me tell you a story.

A few years ago, when I was just starting to publish short stories, I had a conversation with my half-brother David. He told me about a friend of his, a young woman who had sent her very first attempt at short fiction to The New Yorker magazine about twenty years before. And The New Yorker had bought that story from her, first crack out of the box.

"Oh, wow," I said. "That must have been horrible."

As indeed it was. This woman didn't understand at the time what an achievement she had accomplished. Instead, she had learned an odd lesson: you send a story to a magazine, and then they publish it. Isn't that what's supposed to happen?

It's like the old joke about the first-time golfer who scores a hole-in-one, and is surprised by the amazement of everyone around him. "Isn't that what you're supposed to do?" he asks. "Isn't that the point of the game?"

Indeed it is. But it's rare for it to happen like that.

In the case of David's friend, she hadn't been inoculated, as it were, by a series of repeated rejections before making that first sale. So when she sent her second, and then third, and then fourth story to The New Yorker, and they all got rejected, she started to wonder what was wrong with her and her stories, and in the end, she stopped writing and she stopped submitting.

Rejection is the name of the game. If you're a writer, if you're sending out stories or novels or articles or essays or whatever, you should expect at some point to have your work rejected. And for a few reasons, rejection can actually be a good thing. Besides the one I mentioned one above, here's a few more:

Rejection tells you that you're taking risks as a writer. If your work is always being accepted, perhaps you're not stretching your literary muscles enough.

Rejection reminds you not to coast on whatever laurels you've earned, but to treat every new project as one for which you want to do your best.

Rejection keeps you humble. Now, perhaps most people reading this feel that they don't need to be kept humble, but I bet you can all think of other writers for whom this would be a good thing.... :-)

And one final thought -- being rejected demonstrates that you're actually submitting work, showing that you're taking yourself seriously as a professional writer.

(By the way, Masello has some other thoughts and advice on rejection, which has little to do with what I've written about here. I encourage you to take a look.)

Copyright © Michael Burstein


*sigh* I have to disagree here. When I sold my first story, I held a barbecue and burned 200 rejection notices, saving another 50 or so for sentimental reasons. They were all form rejections for stories I'd struggled to make as good as they could possibly be, spanning almost eight years of writing and submitting stories and novels to magazines. If anything, getting all those rejections (and all the ones that followed that first sale) burned me out as a writer. I pretty much don't write fiction anymore, only fanfic, because the thought of working that hard on a story for ten form letters doesn't appeal anymore, not when I know there's no such thing as having my foot in the door. If someone can hit a homerun out of the park on their first try, I say good for them.
I'm really sorry to hear that you're not writing fiction anymore. I hope you'll reconsider.

Selling first crack out of the box is great, but the point I was making was that her early success made her give up a lot sooner than most of us would have. Reaching the 250+ rejections you did is a milestone that shows a level of perseverance and commitment that she never managed to reach.
Well, by now it's closer to 400, but that's my point. Roughly 10 rejections per story written, roughly 100 rejections per story sold over what's by this time a decade of sending stories out. I never used to understand why any sane person would give up writing AFTER selling their first or second story, but by now it makes sense. I don't know how many rejections this woman got before she decided her first sale was a fluke; you didn't say. But how many would you consider to be reasonable? Especially form rejections, which always leave you in doubt that the person even gave your story a chance.

I don't think rejection ever made me a better writer. Constructive criticism, exposure to good and bad writers, absolutely those things had a vital impact on my writing. Rejection, though? Do you feel that rejections you've gotten have made you a better writer?
Do you feel that rejections you've gotten have made you a better writer?

To some extent, yes. I've received rejections that have explained flaws in my work, which, once I analyzed, I realized I could avoid in the future.

Form rejections are, sadly, a different story, as you correctly point out. There's a story that happens with some regularity, where a writer gets a form rejection from a magazine, and then the editor calls him up and asks him for a story. He sends the same story back and this time it gets accepted...because the first time the editor didn't even see it.
Yeah, personal rejections are definitely a different story, but I rank those with personal criticism because I see them about as often as I see acceptances. For me, rejections are almost exclusively form letters.
I garnered 202 rejections before my first pro sale. Some pros at cons have been aghast that I stuck with it so long. Others gripe that I got in easy, that 202 doesn't even being to approach "suffering for your art." After that, I stopped counting, but I'm sure I've easily tripled that in the years since. I've made a number of sales, too, but I'm just coming out of a several year long period where I didn't sell any fiction, and that was extremely frustrating--especially since I knew my more recently written work was better than some of those that had been published. But I couldn't not write. My production slowed greatly (for lots of reasons) but stopping never seriously occurred to me.

Do you feel that rejections you've gotten have made you a better writer?

Not directly. But I believe they've led other writers and readers to perceive me as a better writer than I am. Those rejects kept some absolute drek from getting out into the world and blighting my tenuous reputation. It also kept some ambitious stories out of circulation, because I wasn't skilled enough of a writer at the time to craft them effectively. I've recently sold two of those stories--after major, serious, tear down to the foundation and rebuild from the ground up rewriting--and I'm extremely pleased with both of them. One, I believe, was the third or fourth story I ever wrote, way back in '92 or '93. Do I have more stories I think deserve publication? Absolutely. Do I expect to sell them some day? Absolutley--I just have find the editor who they click with. There's a lot to be said for "Right place, right time."

I became a better writer by writing a lot and honing my craft. I became a better writer by maturing and reading and studying the prose of others I admire. Those rejects kept anyone from seeing the seedy, unsavory places I visited along the road to respectability. :-)

Shortly after I made my first sale to Interzone, my wife--who'd written a few short pieces, but never submitted--sat down and wrote a silly story about kittens and mistaken identity. Took her about two hours, and she sent it off to CATS magazine. They accepted it about a month later, sent her a check and a contract and everything.

Now, we'd been together long enough--and she'd been to enough cons--to know how unusual that was. So naturally she siezed every opportunity to rub it in and point out she sold professionally on her first try. You'd have to know my wife to appreciate her Shatner-esque taunting. :-)

Here's the kicker. Shortly thereafter, there was a major editorial change at the magazine. A year went by. Then two. No story. So Lisa writes a query letter. They respond quickly, saying it's missing from their files and could she resend it, as they want to use it quickly in an upcoming issue. So the issue comes out, and her re-subbed story is front and center in all it's kitteny glory. And what shows up in the mailbox a few days later? Another check from CATS magazine thanking Lisa for her patience and letting them run her story. She's never let me forget that one!

She hasn't written or subbed since then, though.

December 2016

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