When I set out to write (yes, it was a conscious decision after growing tired of my own excuses as to why I wasn’t) I read everything I could find on it and in doing that, read a lot about rejection. So in some ways, I was prepared, or at least forewarned, as to what was coming.
I’m sure you’ve come across articles touting the ‘aim for 100 rejections a year’ theory when seeking to place your work in literary magazines—the theory being that if you’re working that hard to get your writing out there you’re bound to succeed at some point—so that’s what I set out to do. 100 rejections. Sounds fun, right?
It actually ended up being not that bad because I learned to tolerate rejection.
I used to have a fear of flying that was so acute I packed goggles into my carry-on bag if crossing a body of water. After moving to the Caribbean and taking monthly inter-island flights on tiny prop planes ranging from ones I saw duct tape on to planes so small it’s like strapping yourself to a ping pong ball during a hurricane I became less fearful.
On my latest inter-island flight the pilot (who you can see because it’s an open cockpit and you’re sitting right behind him since there’s only six seats, including theirs, in total) opened his box lunch and tucked into a meal of stew chicken shortly after takeoff. This time though, instead of strapping my goggles to my head I asked for a bite. That’s what aiming for 100 rejections is like. It’s exposure therapy. You learn to roll with the nausea-inducing gut punches. You learn that it’s a necessary part of the journey to get to where you want to go.
My parents live in a high-desert climate where the humidity is a solid 4% on a moist day. Visiting them requires preparation: heavy duty moisturizers, a humidifier, super soft tissues for the inevitable nose bleeds. I prefer the tropics. I like to swim through my air. But they love the desert, the endless views, monochromatic colors, and the dryness. Where they see natural, rugged beauty, I see a desolate wasteland.
Beauty is subjective and so is writing. Once you come to terms with this you’ll be able to take rejection in stride. Even though you’re targeting your submissions and doing your research and reading those literary journals—preparing for high desert life, your writing isn’t going to illicit glowing responses from everybody.
Case in point: my most recent little victory, a short story that was rejected five times from small / niche / not widely known literary magazines won 3rd place in Writer’s Digest’s annual short story competition. Imagine if I’d given up after that first or second rejection. Sticking it out long enough by reminding yourself of subjectivity will give you the energy to keep going, to find that perfect publication, reader, or agent.
Contrary to what social media and airports over the holidays might have you believe; the world isn’t filled with assholes. There are a lot of people out there giving up their time to be good literary citizens, working for absolutely nothing to bring literature to the world, giving up 5-10 hours a week just to read submissions. And they’re doing all of that in addition to their own human concerns: paying bills, holding down a job, taking care of a family, working on their own writing projects, staying sane.
The best way to gain an empathetic view of those rejecting you / learning the lesson of subjectivity is to volunteer to read for a literary magazine. Become a rejecter. I am a rejecter. At the lit magazine I read for we receive 10-12 works of short fiction a week via Submittable and our options after reading each are: thumbs up, thumbs down, or question mark (which means it will go to another reader for a second opinion). You’ll learn very quickly how subjective writing is and how hard it is to click on the thumbs down icon.
Once you learn subjectivity through rejection, instead of wanting to fire off an angry email about how they’re too stupid to understand your genius you learn to be thankful that someone out there gave up their valuable time to read your writing, and even more thankful if they gave personal feedback that you might be able to tweak your work with. Most personal feedback gems are truly worth treasuring.
Quitters never win and winners never quit, but those who never win and never quit are idiots
One of the first short stories I ever wrote kept getting rejected, like, a lot. I didn’t get it. I felt as though I’d read enough in my life to know when something is good or not and I am still my own worst critic, so finally I quit submitting that piece and decided to workshop it in order to get some perspective. The author whose workshop I took had great things to say about a lot: the setting, dialogue, pacing, but here was the kicker—she said, “your MC comes off as a sociopath.”
And you know what? She was right. The person in my mind wasn’t a sociopath, but the person on the page totally was. So I reworked it, layered in more empathetic backstory, rounded out their harder edges, and resubmitted. Version 2.0 got rejected (ahhh subjectivity, we meet again), but then it got accepted.
Is there a point to this?
There is. Learning to tolerate rejection with shorter pieces is probably the best thing I did for myself while writing a novel because once you start sending your entire novel to beta readers and getting feedback on years worth of work that runs the gamut from “you should kill this character” to “I can’t connect to any of these people” to “this is perfect” ( <-liar, and not the sort of beta reader you want) you’ll know what to take and what to keep. You’ll be able to view it as a part of the process instead of your entire life going down in one fiery, out of control nose dive from 30,000 ft.