The writer’s life is riddled with rejection. It comes from editors and agents, contest administrators, granting institutions, and arts organizations. With enough rejection, your eyes can glaze over at the form letter addressed simply “dear writer,” and the sight of a stuffed-full mailbox can sink an otherwise bright day. Even writers with naturally tough skin can get down after the hundredth “thank you, but this just isn’t right for us.” If you’re in this for the long haul, you need to find a way keep those feelings in check.
It may help to expect rejection. This may sound pessimistic, but it’s not. Rejection is realistic. Look at the numbers: Let’s say a journal receives a hundred submissions a month during their nine month reading period and they publish eight short stories in each issue, with two issues each year. Sixteen writers get good news from that journal, while 884 receive rejections. Many popular journals receive a thousand submissions a month with only a slight increase in the number of publications. You can see how the ratio quickly skews in favor of rejection. If you’re not waiting in anticipation—with everything in a holding pattern—until you get that notice, the rejection won’t sting quite as much.
The trouble with rejection is that it’s hard to turn it into something productive. Rejection means one of two hard truths and determining which is the case for any given submission isn’t an easy task. It may be that your strong work hasn’t met the right editor yet. Submissions are rejected for many reasons. At a journal, your submission may have been in the pool of ten that were whittled down to eight. An agent may be impressed with your work but not enthusiastic enough about it to feel he can properly represent it. Or a publishing house may have released something very similar to your submission recently. This may be little solace as the postal worker nears your house with a fist full of self addressed stamped envelopes, but it might help you continue to send your work out into the world.
Of course, rejection may be coming because your fiction simply isn’t up to snuff and isn’t ready to be published. Make sure you’re sending out your strongest work. Revise over and over. Show it to trusted readers for feedback. When you think you’re “done,” let it sit awhile and then revise it again. Even after you start sending your work out, revisit it occasionally with an eye for revision. You may find the time between submitting it and receiving rejections gives you new insight. It may not be the gem you once thought.
Whether hoarding the rejection letters in a file, tacking them up on the wall, or tossing them in the trash, the savvy writer sees if there’s anything to be learned from a rejection first. Form rejections may not be particularly helpful, but if a note has been scrawled at the bottom of a form letter or if someone took the time to write a more personal note, there may be valuable advice. Look at the comments objectively and see if you agree. If a rejection mentions the end of your novel “didn’t settle well enough for us,” reconsider the ending through the prism of that comment. You may agree and revise. Or you may not and continue to send that same draft out. But use the opportunity to reconsider elements you may have been taking for granted.
While you’re fiction submissions are piled on the desks of agents or filed away in the slush pile, make sure you're writing. Waiting is only guaranteed to be productive and rewarding if you use it as an opportunity to create.