The Blunt Instrument on Dealing with Rejection & the Anxiety of Publishing

The Blunt Instrument is a monthly advice column for writers. If you need tough advice for a writing problem, send your question to blunt@electricliterature.com.

Dear Blunt Instrument,

Do you have any tips for handling an endless cycle of rejection … emotionally? I’m a 26-year-old fiction writer and I’ve barely ever been published; I’ve been rejected from MFA programs, lit journals, websites, contests, etc. And I feel sad about it every time. I’m not going to give up, but I think it would be fun and motivating to get some kind of validation every once in a while. I wonder if you have any tough advice that’s more specific than just, “toughen up”?

Thanks,

Rejected in Rejectsville

Hi Rejected,

Rather than “toughening up,” I’d focus on gaining perspective. Feeling sad about every rejection you get isn’t going to accomplish anything, but more importantly it’s usually misplaced sadness. Most of the time, rejection is not even about you. Editors reject work for all kinds of reasons — it just doesn’t speak to them on the hour of the day they happen to read it, they already have a similar story slated for the issue, they don’t spend enough time with it to get what you’re trying to do, they don’t like your name or the font you use, et cetera et cetera. You’re also just up against difficult math: Most publications only publish a small fraction of what they receive — the acceptance rate at top-tier journals is less than 1%. Good stuff gets rejected all the time. (And bad stuff gets published! “Good” and “bad” are relative anyway!) When making decisions, editors may end up choosing writers who already have name recognition or a publishing record over relative unknowns, all other things being equal. For these reasons, even if you send out lots of work, it’s not that surprising that you’re getting lots of rejections when you’re only 26.

Feeling sad about every rejection you get isn’t going to accomplish anything, but more importantly it’s usually misplaced sadness. Most of the time, rejection is not even about you.

You may know all this intellectually, but have trouble accepting it on an emotional level. If that’s the case, I strongly recommend that you do some editing work. Journals are always looking for help with reading submissions. Being on the other side of the desk for a while will give you a much stronger sense of the numbers involved, how much time editors (usually working for little to no pay) are able to spend on each submission, and the heuristics editors need to use to get through the submissions queue and figure out what to pass on and what to reject. In my other career as a manager in a corporate job, I’ve reviewed hundreds of resumes, and it’s given me a fundamentally different view of what should go in a cover letter and resume, as well as what kinds of jobs are even worth applying for given the candidate’s experience level. Doing some editorial work will give you the same kind of perspective, helping you see what editors do and don’t care about and just how much of the decision process isn’t personal.

It’s also important to keep in mind that every writer at every level experiences rejection. I know of no level of success where writers stop getting rejected (and stop at least occasionally feeling bummed about it). People generally make more noise about publications than rejections, the same way people mostly share pictures of happy moments on Facebook, making their sad moments invisible. So if you spend much time on social media, you might start to feel like you’re the only one fielding rejection slips. You just have to remember that’s not the case; the math assures you rejections are the rule, acceptances the exception. (And if other writers’ good news really gets to you, consider spending less time on social media.)

So, perspective. That’s step 1. But you are completely right when you say that occasional validation is fun and motivating. So how do you make sure you’re getting validation from time to time?

First, find a community of other writers to share work with so you can get readership and feedback without having to wait for publication. It’s so helpful to have at least one or two friends who are “good readers” of your work — meaning they understand what you’re trying to do and can help you achieve it. Generous but honest readers will help you figure out if your work is actually ready to send out, which is something you probably won’t get from editors. (Lots of rejections don’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with your story! I’ve found that some of my best poems have been the hardest to get published, probably because they are riskier.) I’ve talked more about the importance of finding a community here, here, and here.

It’s so helpful to have at least one or two friends who are “good readers” of your work — meaning they understand what you’re trying to do and can help you achieve it.

Second, ask yourself if you’re aiming too high with your current submissions. Every now and then a writer gets her first story or poem published in The New Yorker or whatever, but that’s just crazy luck. Most people have to work their way up to some extent. Your first publication will likely be a smaller, less selective magazine or journal. So if you have zero or few publication credits to your name, start out by trying to place some stories in small mags that take most of their work from the “slush” (some top-tier journals accept slush but give a lot of space to solicited work). There are so many journals out there, you should be able to find something small that also publishes work you genuinely like. (Maintain standards, obviously; you don’t want to end up actually disappointed by any acceptances.) And don’t “save” your best story for The New Yorker; by the time you have an editor or agent who can help you place it there, you’ll have written better stories.

*

Hi Elisa,

I’m in the final months of a Creative Writing MA. I also spend — outside of the course (I commute long-distance) — all my time with novelists and journalists. There’s a lot of talk about the tortures of publishing — agents, publicity, money, etc.

The course is almost like downtime. It’s a total joy working out the mechanics of writing with other writers. Discussing the publishing process is seen as a little forward. I know that’s not going to last forever, and anyone who denies getting published would be great is probably lying. Also, the downtime is pretty short, as much as they tell you the MA is for “experimenting” and “finding your voice.” The course culminates in a massive agent hoopla where lots of the best writers get picked off.

Maybe it’s anxiety, a lack of confidence, I don’t know, but all this stuff is demotivating (and I already procrastinate like hell). How I do I get back into my er, special place and just write without fear of what might happen after (or what might not?)

Thank you!

Please can this be anonymous…

Dear Please,

I’m going to use a dumb analogy to try to help you, and here it is: The holidays are not a good time to try to lose weight. If you roll into December with an extra ten pounds to lose, you’ll very likely still going to be wearing at least those ten pounds by January. Accepting this should take the pressure off and allow you to enjoy a bit of fudge, for pete’s sake, then re-motivate when there isn’t fudge everywhere you turn.

Similarly, writing the first draft of a novel is a time to be permissive and a little self-indulgent. You are going to have to worry about getting it in shape to be published, finding an agent and all that other anxious-making stuff later, if and when you finish the draft, so why not give yourself this time to focus on the joyful part? In fact, working on a project that brings you joy is the absolute best way to ensure you finish the project.

You are going to have to worry about getting it in shape to be published, finding an agent and all that other anxious-making stuff later, if and when you finish the draft, so why not give yourself this time to focus on the joyful part?

Basically, I’m giving you permission to procrastinate, but only put off the stuff that’s actually better to worry about later on. Thinking about what agents want, what publishers can market and so forth during the drafting stage is going to stifle you and lead you to make bad writing decisions. You can always revise later.

So next time you’re hanging out with your writer friends and the topic of agents/publicity/money comes up, try saying something like, “I decided to stop worrying about all that shit until I finish my novel and I’ve been much happier and more productive ever since.” Maybe you’ll inspire them!

Best of luck,

The Blunt Instrument

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