I’ve been rejected more times than I can count. And I’ll bet you have, too. Not in terms of having a manuscript rejected—I can still count every one of those rejections, and I’ll bet you can too. But getting rejected by friends, by teammates, by bosses, by the guy in high school who never came through with the prom invitation…we’ve all had plenty of experience with rejection.
So what I’m going to say applies to all kinds of rejection. If you’ve been turned down for a promotion at work, or invited someone to lunch and had her cancel at the last minute, or offered to help with something and been refused…all of those are rejection. It’s universal. The only way you’ll never be rejected is if you never OFFER anything, and that’s not much of a way to live.
Which means that rejection has to be endured. But when it comes to writing, rejection can be useful. And that’s what we’re gonna talk about here: making rejection work for you.
Some of the ways are obvious. Sometimes you’ll have a synopsis or a contest entry rejected with a very clear, helpful explanation of what’s wrong with it; and you can use that explanation to improve your writing the next time around.
You can also record whatever you’re feeling and use it next time you need to write a scene where a character has just gone through the same thing.
And you can use rejection to remind yourself of all the truisms—like how Albert Einstein flunked math, or how Thomas Edison tried ninety-seven different formulas before he came up with the light bulb, or how Wayne Dyer was rejected by every publisher in New York before “Your Erroneous Zones” became a best-seller…we all know all those stories. And they can be helpful to remember when we’re feeling discouraged.
But right when you’ve first gotten that rejection, right when they’ve just shot down the best thing you’ve ever written, you don’t need helpful stories. What you need right now is: grief.
Grief is essential. You have to take time to mourn. The reason is, as Steve Chandler once said, “you can’t leave a place until you’ve been there.” If you want to get past the grief, you have to feel it first.
Now, I tend to try and skip this stage. When I got my third complete manuscript rejected after selling my first Silhouette Special Edition, I spent the whole weekend in bed reading Ken Follett books, because I just didn’t want to deal with any kind of feelings. And even now, if I get a bad review I try and skip the grief. I tell myself, “hey, it’s okay, no problem, win some lose some, tomorrow is another day,” and all those other cheerful things—but if I don’t let myself feel the grief, it’s still going to be there.
I need to acknowledge it. I need to experience it. I need to be angry and upset and scared and sad and devastated—because only after I’ve BEEN there can I leave this place.
So while I’m grieving, what am I feeling? I’m sad. I’m hurt. I’m miserable. I’m mad.
Let’s talk about mad.
There’s a theory that anger invariably is triggered by one of two things—hurt or fear. If something makes me angry, it has first made me hurt or afraid. So if I’m angry at my son for not cleaning his room, it means that I’m hurt he didn’t care enough about me to listen to my instructions. If I’m angry at my husband for not phoning to say he’ll be home late, it means I’m afraid he was in a car accident or with some other woman. Maybe all I’ll SHOW is the anger—”you jerk, how dare you not let me know when you’re going to be late” or “how dare you leave your room messy”—but behind that anger is hurt or fear.
Think of the things that make you angry, and I’ll bet that behind most of them—maybe not all, but probably quite a few—you’ll be able to spot some hurt or fear.
Anyway, regardless of what causes your anger…when it doesn’t get released, anger turns inward. And you know what it turns into? Depression. That’s a favorite saying among counselors, the kind you see embroidered on a sampler: “Depression is anger turned inward.” That’s why more women than men suffer from depression, is because men are brought up with the understanding that it’s okay to get mad and women tend to be discouraged from expressing anger.
So if rejection leads to hurt or fear, which it does—”oh, my gosh, they didn’t like my story! I’m a failure”—then that hurt or fear can lead to anger. And unless the anger is expressed, it’s going to fester in there and lead to depression. So when you get a rejection of any kind, it’s important to release the anger.
How? I hate this, I hate the idea of doing most of these things. But there are a lot of ways you can release anger, and sometimes you have to try a bunch of them before you find one that doesn’t make you feel stupid.
What are some options? Pounding on pillows. Yelling at somebody. Driving ninety miles an hour on the freeway. Going in the restroom stall and pushing really hard on both walls. Probably the most effective way is doing something physical. The good news is that this doesn’t have to be tearing down your garage. Mopping the floor works fine. Changing the sheets works fine. Even walking very fast through the mall works fine.
The thing is, you’ve got to use your muscles. Not weightlifting muscles, but some kind of physical exertion. You don’t need to go home winded, but you need to use your muscles somehow or other. Just moving, just DOing something with your body, is a great way to let out feelings of anger or hurt or fear.
And the other great way to let out those feelings is to share them with other people.
I tend to not want to do this, either. I want people to think I’m perfect, that I never get turned down, that everything I ever do is absolutely wonderful and so what have I got to feel bad about? Which makes it hard to say, “there was a reader on amazon.com who hated my book.” Or worse yet, “the editor didn’t like my proposal.” I want to keep up a good front…and anybody with an Excellence priority will know exactly how that feels.
But when I do tell people that I got rejected and I feel awful about it, they’re tremendously supportive. Not one person has ever said, “Gee, you must be a pretty terrible writer.” They either remind me of my good points (which I find hard to remember when I’ve just been rejected) or they offer advice which I may or may not use…but either way, they let me know they’re on my side. They understand. They care.
And when I want someone to understand and care about a writing rejection, I’ve found that it helps to ask for support both from writers and from non-writers. The writers are good because they know exactly how I feel; they’ve been through it themselves. And the non-writers are good because they have a whole different perspective; it’s a lot easier for them to remember that selling a book isn’t the only thing in the world that matters.
But regardless of whom you pick to share your feelings with, sharing feelings does help when you get rejected.
So okay. You’ve got your bad critique or your turned-down synopsis or your no-thanks letter from the editor, and now you’ve called every friend in the book and mopped every floor in the house. What do you do now?
Now it’s time to put this rejection work to for you, psychologically. How? By taking control of what you do next.
Okay, what does that mean, taking control? It means you need to make some decisions. You need to decide whether you want to go on writing.
What? you say. Of course I want to go on writing! I’m a writer!
Well, that’s fine. But right now, right after a rejection, is usually when most of us begin to question that statement. Am I REALLY a writer? Do I really want to go on writing? And right now—once you’ve finished with that first rush of grief—is the time to consider that question.
Do I really want to go on writing?
Now, if you’re writing strictly for your own enjoyment, if you’ve never considered submitting anything for publication, you don’t need to bother considering this question. Because your writing is never going to be rejected! (There was a speaker a few years ago at a counseling workshop, a Dustin Hoffman-looking guy, who announced that, “In all my years of high school, no girl ever turned me down for a date. Of course, that might be because I never asked any girl for a date.”) So if you’re never going to ask any girl for a date, if you’re never going to send out your manuscript, you don’t need to worry about rejection.
But if you’ve been writing with a goal of getting published and you’ve just gotten a rejection that hurts, the most important question to ask yourself is, “Why am I doing this?”
Why am I writing proposals and sending them off to publishers and sending contest entries off to judges and chapters off to critique groups and queries off to editors who might not ever love them as much as I do?
Well, of course there’s a reason. We don’t do anything without a reason. If you just crossed your legs, you had a reason—your body was uncomfortable in the old position. If you move to Fresno, you have a reason—you got a job there, or your husband got a job there and you’d rather live with him in Fresno than stay here without him. We don’t necessarily look at our motivations for every single thing we do (crossing our legs, for instance), but every single thing we do, we do for a reason.
So you may have a number of different reasons for trying to sell a novel; you don’t necessarily do it for just one. But it’s important to know what your reasons are.
Money? It’s generally not enough money to live on, but sometimes you can make money. Money’s fine.
Recognition? Sometimes. You may get a nice compliment from someone who admired your work or who admires writers in general, and that’s nice. Recognition is good.
A feeling of competence? You might get a real sense of “boy, I’m good,” when you finish a great chapter or see your name on a book cover. Competence is a nice thing to feel.
And there are probably dozens of other reasons that people write. Enjoyment, sure. A sense of pride in building a skill. The fun of meeting friends who share your interests. The chance to get autographed books at conferences. There are lots of reasons we write.
But what we need to ask ourselves when we’re suffering the pain of rejection is, “Is it worth it?”
If I’m writing for a sense of achievement, am I getting enough of that feeling to make it all worthwhile? If I’m writing for money, am I making enough to offset the pain of rejection? If I’m writing for a chance to meet friends, is it possible that these people would still like me even if I never wrote another word?
Here’s what the question boils down to: If writing is a way of getting something (which it is, or we wouldn’t be doing it), and yet this way is causing me the pain of rejection—is there some other, easier way to get what I want?
Well, of course that depends on what you want. Money? Absolutely there are faster, easier ways to get money. Recognition? Sure, there are other ways to get recognition. Pure enjoyment? We can all think of things we enjoy besides writing.
So the question is, will I be happier trying one of these other ways to reach my goal?
Two possible answers. One is “yeah, maybe I would be happier getting money/friends/achievement—whatever it is I want—by some means other than writing novels.”
If so, that’s fine. There is nothing wrong with changing methods of achieving your goal.
I tell my counseling clients this: changing methods doesn’t mean you’ve wasted your time. If you decide you’d rather aim at fame and fortune by becoming a chef, that still doesn’t negate what you’ve already achieved. By working at writing, even if it’s led to rejection, you’ve definitely learned something. You’ve grown as a person. You’ve had some new experiences, discovered some new truths, developed some new skills— so acknowledge that! Celebrate it. Changing goals is not a failure as long as you recognize what you’ve gained along the way.
So changing goals is one possible response to the question, “Will I be happier trying some other way of getting (whatever)?” The other response is, “No, I definitely want to keep on writing for publication.”
That’s fine, too. As long as you recognize that aiming for this goal will involve some pain along the way, there is no reason not to keep after it. A couple suggestions: First, remember that pain is never wasted. Every bit of pain you go through builds up your endurance, builds up your muscles, makes you stronger for the next round. You don’t want to go through it every day, nobody does…but pain is never wasted.
Also remember that any career you choose, any hobby your choose, is gonna involve some pain. My husband is a marathon runner, and he loves it…thinks there’s nothing as wonderful as getting up at five in the morning and running a ten-mile warmup. But he spends probably two hours in the jacuzzi every night working his leg muscles because they hurt. Someone who does needlepoint is gonna get eyestrain. My mother plays the piano and her wrists get sore. ANYthing you enjoy and do a lot of is gonna involve some pain, somewhere along the line. So you have to expect it, and decide what kind of pain you’re willing to put up with.
And the last suggestion, if you decide to continue with a goal that involves the pain of rejection, like writing for publication: you want to make sure and augment your life with a few other activities. If your entire life is focused on selling a book and you get a rejection, your entire life just went down the tubes. But if writing is blended into your life with other satisfying things—your job, your home, your outside interests—the pain of rejection won’t be nearly so intense.
And of course you’re going to be rejected. Even Nora Roberts gets a bad review once in a while! So when it happens, what do you do?
First, you grieve. Then you tell yourself, “I can stand discomfort. Yes, this is uncomfortable, but so are a lot of things in life.”
And finally you ask yourself, “Why am I writing? Is there some other, easier way to accomplish that goal?” And you base your actions according to whatever you decide.
The thing to remember is that you’re in control. Nobody else can make up your mind for you. You’re the only one who gets to decide whether you want to keep writing or not. Even if a judge has rejected your manuscript or an editor has rejected your query, you still control your actions. You and only you can decide whether you want to keep writing, whether it’s worth putting up with the pain of rejection.
Now, finally…two more tips on getting through pain. Tip number one—when you get any bad feeling and you can’t seem to get rid of it, ask yourself “What are three good reasons for keeping this feeling?”
Remember how we never do anything without a reason? You’ve probably got some good reasons for holding onto this awful feeling, whatever it might be. Say the editor just turned down your proposal, and you’re devastated. Some good reasons to hold onto that devastation might be…what?
Well, for me one reason might be that as long as I’m suffering, I can’t possibly be expected to expose myself to further anguish, like fixing up the proposal and/or sending it out again. I can’t risk that. If I’m suffering so badly that I never again send out another proposal, I can still say I’m a writer…I just don’t have to back it up with any action. So that might be one good reason to hold onto this devastation.
Another might be the suspicion that I have to pay for the good times somehow. You know how great it feels when your story is working, when your characters are leaping right off the screen, when it feels like you’re falling in love for the first time because every single thing reminds you of this wonderful person, or this wonderful book…isn’t that a great feeling? And I sometimes think, “Come on, Laurie, nothing in life is free. Yeah, you’re high right now, but you know there’s gotta be a low someplace.” And if my proposal gets rejected—whoosh bam, there it is. It keeps my sense of proportion intact.
So those are two reasons to hang onto the feeling of devastation. Another might be the sheer enjoyment of this emotional intensity. You know how Creative People are, right? We’re all tormented artists deep in our souls, and oh, the drama of this horrendous pain i> I’m a creative genius, a tormented soul, woe is me.
All right, that sounds silly. (And if you find yourself laughing at any of your reasons to hold onto a bad feeling, congratulations…you’re closer to letting it go!)
But it’s true that creative people (like all of us writers) tend to feel things more intensely than the average person on the street. And people with bigger feelings tend to have a harder time remembering the value of…guess what? This is gonna be a surprise.
The value of independence.
Independence is crucial to emotional well-being. We’ve all heard about how awful it is to be co-dependent, and there’s a reason why any kind of dependence can lead to problems. ANYtime you feel let down, it means you’ve been depending on someone or something that didn’t come through. Remember back when I felt hurt and angry at Christopher for not cleaning his room and Pete for not calling to say he’d be late? I was depending on them to behave the way I wanted, and as a result I was disappointed.
Now, obviously, there are people and situations that you can and DO depend on. But publishers aren’t especially well-known for always behaving exactly the way writers want. And yet all too often we writers are in a position where, if we want our book in every Barnes & Noble from here to New Zealand, we have to depend on some publisher to read it and love it and publish it.
So anytime that doesn’t happen, there’s gonna be some pain. And keep in mind that pain isn’t always completely horrible. Sometimes you can get something out of it—like the pleasure of feeling like a melancholy artistic genius, or an excuse to quit marketing that manuscript while still calling yourself a writer—and if that works for you better than overcoming the pain or trying some other way of meeting your goal, then for heaven’s sake enjoy it!
But if you do decide to keep risking the pain of rejection, here’s one last tip for getting through any unpleasant feeling that comes up. Actually, it’s a four-step process…and what you do is answer the next four questions:
#1. What is this feeling?
Anger? Fear? Sadness? Envy? Boredom? Incompetence? You name it. Just being able to identify the feeling gives you more of a sense of control…and a sense of control does wonders for your self-esteem.
#2. Where did this feeling come from?
Chapter Eight not working? My cousin not remembering my birthday? Having my book rejected? A bad hair day? Whatever it is, identify the source. You need to know what got you started feeling this way.
#3: How long do I want to keep this feeling?
Ten minutes? Two weeks? Four hours? For something like a death in the family, it could last for years. But even so, you want to break it into manageable chunks. Let’s say if my grandmother died and I was looking at our old photos and it made me feel sad, I might choose to really feel that sadness for fifteen minutes. After fifteen minutes, I have to stop.
Wait a minute, you say. I’m sad! I can’t just stop being sad.
But let’s say I’m looking at the photo album, and all of a sudden a crazed drug runner breaks into my house with a machine gun and says, “I’m going down and I’m taking you down with me.” Am I going to sit there being sad?
No. I’m gonna get away from the drug runner. Once I’ve raced next door and called 911, I can go back to being sad if I want to. But for that five minutes of fleeing from the drug runner, I wasn’t sad.
Why not? After all, none of this changed the fact that my grandmother died, that I miss her and my life will never be the same and these photos remind me of how great she was and I’ll never see her again. Nothing has changed except that for five minutes, I quit feeling sad. And remember how we never do anything without a reason? Whatever my reason, I chose to quit feeling sad.
Maybe I didn’t consciously stop and make the choice: “You know, I think I’ll quit feeling sad for the next five minutes in order to save my life.” Or, in order to save my sanity. Or, to save myself from feeling lousy. But for whatever reason, I made the choice to quit feeling sad. And I can make that choice anytime I want to.
Big sentence, here: I can make that choice anytime I want to.
This means, then, that I can decide how long I want to feel sad about my grandmother before I quit to save myself from the drug runner…or to save myself from the misery. An hour? Ten minutes? Whatever. You have a pretty good sense of how long you can indulge in a feeling before you want to move onto something else. So I might decide that I’m going to feel sad for half an hour. But then, I have to quit and move onto something else.
Now that doesn’t mean I can’t feel sad again later on. But what’s important now is to decide how long I want to keep this feeling RIGHT NOW. And then to stick to whatever amount of time that is, and move onto something else.
That leads to our final question, and it’s the most important.
#4. Once the time is up on this feeling, what am I going to replace it with?
It has to be an action, not just another feeling. You can’t just decide, “Okay, in ten minutes I’m going to start feeling…let’s see, ecstatic.” What you can do is choose an action—and if it’s an action that will make you feel ecstatic, that’s fine.
If I’m feeling sad about my grandmother, what I might put in place of that sadness is a quick run around the block. Or a phone call to a friend. Or a trip to the grocery store. Some specific action that will get my mind off the sadness.
And what’s amazing is that this works. You might find yourself driving to the grocery store and suddenly feeling sad again—but when that happens you remind yourself, “Whoops! Time’s up. Right now I’m doing the shopping; I already did my half hour of sadness.” You can do another half hour later on if you want, but right now you stay focused on the grocery store.
Now, you can do this on your own anytime you want to. Try it. It’s hard to believe how well this works until you’ve actually practiced it. Next time you’re mad at your husband or hurt by your kids or frustrated with your boss or whatever, pick how long you want to keep that feeling—don’t cheat yourself, pick as long a time as you want—and then pick what you’re gonna put in its place.
I guarantee you, it’ll work. Because it reminds you of something we all tend to forget, and that is: We are in control of our choices. We’re not always in control of our circumstances (if we were, we’d never have anything rejected!) but we are in control of our choices. We can choose how to deal with rejection. We can choose how we want to respond—what practical steps we want to take, how long we want to grieve, who we want to share the pain with, what we’re gonna do in pursuit of our goals— those are all our choices, and nobody else’s.
So acknowledge the fact that you are in control. You can make your own choices. And regardless of what you choose to do when faced with rejection, you have the control to make whatever decisions you want.
Now, I hope you don’t sign off this website and find a rejection letter in your mailbox! But next time you get rejected by anyone, next time you run into anything that hurts—keep in mind that you can choose your response. You have the control.
Acknowledge it. Use it. You’ll be amazed at how powerful you are.