Literary Citizenship: How to Handle Rejection and Nurture Emerging Voices

February 20, 2018 | 5 min read

Around Christmas, LitHub put up their round-up of The Most-Rejected Books of All Time (Of Those That Were Eventually Published), and the literary Internet chimed in—I chimed in, too, sharing that my forthcoming novel had been rejected 98 times.

The reality of rejection is not a new topic for lit mags or bookish media, and what often follows these articles is the chorus of authors who have had some kind of publishing success, or, in my case (and in the cases of countless others like me), at least enough success to feel comfortable sharing about rejection and to be able to conceptualize it as a pathway to print.

However, without a book or two, or at least a string of magazine appearances, those rejection numbers, whether it’s nine or 19 or 98, feel less like a badge of honor. I certainly wouldn’t have shared my number if my manuscript were not under contract. In fact, I had a higher number for my first novel, and I never talked about it frankly until the book was out. I also didn’t talk about how one agent wrote to me and said they could maybe sell it if I made the main character male instead of female. And I didn’t discuss the angry rejections I got—because my protagonist was so “unlikable”—I just kept trying to place it. As Roxane Gay has written, on Twitter and elsewhere, it’s important to not let rejection be validation.

While it’s true that writers absolutely must believe in their own work, must try to cultivate a thick skin, must be polite to editors (please, please be polite to editors), rejection and everything that comes with it—doubt, disappointment, demoralization—is real, and if we care about cultivating new voices, we must ask how we, as a community, can do better than patting ourselves on the back for our own moxie.

For all of the happy endings born of multiple rejections, I know there are writers out there with very good, even breakthrough stories and manuscripts who have given up at 20, or 50, or 97, just as there are writers who scraped together $30 dollars for a contest, and were not selected and who do not have the funds to apply again.

Recently, a writer emailed me and said she had been rejected a handful of times for her YA novel. I told her, nicely, I thought, that until she got to 100, she should get over it. She didn’t write me back.

I’ve said this so many times, to so many aspiring writers, this “100 rejections” thing. I’ve said it on panels. I’ve said it in workshops. I’ve said it in topical conversations and casual ones. I said it at a pizza place during a birthday party for a cousin when I was talking about having a day job.

I keep thinking about this. Emerging writers already know how hard it is. Shouldn’t we, instead of continuing the “tough it out” conversation, be more transparent about our own experiences and challenges?

(I’m not naïve about my particular contribution to this conversation—but four years ago, which is not so long, before my first book, I was just another writer in the slush. I never considered that I’d stop writing, but I did start to believe I would never have my own name on my own spine.)

Perhaps it’s better to make a different point, like about how unpredictable writing can be. For example, my most-read work to date is not the stories I worked on for over a decade, it’s not the novel I spent eight years on, it’s a guest post I dashed off about how many books don’t sell.

Or, how once, I had a story accepted in a print publication because I guess they liked it well enough but mostly they needed a very specific word count for their layout. I know this because the editor told me. I’m not really sure why he told me. I’m not sure what I was supposed to do with this information. It’s a decent magazine, and I submitted because I had read it, so now it’s there on my publication list with everything else.

A few weeks ago on the Brevity blog, Allison K. Williams wrote about literary citizenship and the value we get from helping others alongside imploring writers to do their homework. Learn the business she says, because it is a business.

There’s certainly no obligation to share trusted contacts or make introductions to friendlies, and we don’t have to offer guidance towards specific publication outlets: it’s old, old advice, but writers should get a sense of who their targets are via their reading habits.

Still, in terms of the woman who wrote to me, I could have encouraged instead of being blasé. I could have asked her how she was targeting her submissions, as careful targeting will cut down on heartbreak. I could have asked her any number of questions that were supportive rather than dismissive. I could have sent her a link to a success story, instead of trotting out the 100 rejections narrative again.

If nothing else, I certainly could have been much more transparent about how it has felt, collecting so many rejections. I will always believe that it’s foolish to give up at only three or four, but it takes some real time to get to 100 or beyond. It can take literal years. I could have shared how much it is a drain trying to stay positive for myself even if I am not always positive externally. I could have shared how I keep all the rejections in an alphabetized card file so I can look at them and remind myself that I am actually doing tangible work, not just moving pixels around on a screen.

I could have shared about how I talk sometimes to writer friends about re-imaging rejection as “reminder”—how when a publication or press or an agent declines, it’s just a nudge to submit again, elsewhere.

It’s a nice idea, in theory. In practice, it’s a lot of trips to the post office or a lot of time on Submittable. It’s also, as far as I can tell, the only way to get there.

If I had read the LitHub article before I had a book, I would have thought, Well, that’s nice for them to be finally published, what about the rest of us. We all know it’s hard to make a living as a writer, yet when I received the largest sum I’d ever been paid for a single essay or story, I didn’t share about this, because it was a kill fee. That’s something other writers should know. Again, it’s an unpredictable business. Any of us who have been doing it for a while have pages of anecdotes like this, though as authors in the contemporary landscape, we’re told to develop our platform, to promote ourselves, to broadcast our wins, not announce our letdowns.

Perhaps the most transparent thing to say to emerging writers is to be open. Listen to the overworked editors who have taken time to offer a sentence or two of feedback—yours is one of hundreds if not thousands of submissions; it’s a big deal to get even nominal comments. And listen if you keep getting the same kind of observations; I definitely did not rewrite my first novel so that the protagonist was male instead of female, but I did rework it, several times, and while the main character isn’t more “likeable,” it’s absolutely a better book for this effort.

You don’t have to get numb to rejection, and you don’t have to accept that it’s always going to be the default response. You should certainly never feel ashamed by it.

If you believe in your work and you push yourself to make it better, if you’ve researched your markets, if you are an active reader, if you are paying attention to what editors ask for, your work will find a home. Maybe you’ll have to endure the 100 rejections scenario, but I really hope not.

When you do get there, shout your wins, but don’t forget to be transparent—for instance, this essay has been through 11 drafts, and I’m still not sure it’s quite right—and loud enough in sharing your failures so that emerging voices can hear you.

Image Credit: Flickr/Judith E. Bell.

is the author most recently of the novel If the Ice Had Held. She holds an MFA from Eastern Washington University, lives in Denver, Colorado, and tweets from @WendyJeanFox.