Wednesday, November 19, 2014

On rejection, revision, and deciding not to

I've been thinking a lot about rejection recently. In part, this is due to a couple of conversations with my writing critique clients - one who wondered whether they should pull a story from circulation, due to the number of rejections it had received, one who had come to the conclusion that they absolutely could not face another rewrite of the thing they were working on. 

Now, these are both things I have felt in the course of my writing career, so it wasn't so much that I was surprised these other writers felt them too, but I was surprised at when. In both cases, the numbers were small. You could add them together, the rejections and the rewrites, and you would come up with five.

Now, let me be clear that the only thing I felt was surprise. I am not in any way judging those writers, or judging anyone who - at any point in their writing - says no. This is it. I am done with this project, I am done with writing altogether. It can be dispiriting, to realize that you need to revise a project, especially a major revision, one more time. Rejections are always hard, and they accrete. 

I was not one of the people who knew all their lives, or at least relatively early on, that they wanted to be a writer. In fact, it was almost exactly seven years ago that I decided I wanted to see if I could write, and decided I was going to apply to Clarion.

I wrote four short stories. One was too short to use in my portfolio. I picked the best two of the remaining three. I got in.

I sold the first short story I wrote after Clarion. I sold the second one. 

Then for 18 months, I couldn't sell a damn thing, not that I wasn't trying. I was trying so hard that once, I got three rejections in one day.

That was not a particularly good day.

I don't know any writer who hasn't gotten rejections. Even the people who look like they are out of nowhere overnight successes, whose careers look as if they have been kissed by the Muse, and the gods, and Lady Luck, even those people get rejections. The only way to ensure that your work will never be rejected is to stop sending it out.

My friend Monica Byrne, whose stunning debut novel The Girl in the Road, was published earlier this year, once put together what she called an anti-resume. She's very specific about her own rates of success, and rates of rejection. For example, The Girl in the Road - a book that got published in a major deal, a book I expect to see on a number of awards short lists - was rejected 67 times.

I find this oddly comforting. Not because I wish Monica anything less than stunning success and immediate recognition of her brilliance, but because it's proof of how subjective things are. 

When I started sending work out, I had this idea that it was either good or bad. If the story was good, it would get bought. If the story was not good, it would be rejected. This is not how things work. I've had many stories that sold, but were not bought by the first market that I sent them to. Rejection doesn't equal bad. It equals not this place, not this time.

Then there is the topic of rewrites and revisions. For most of us, perfection does not spring directly off of our pen and onto the page. Sometimes the fixes are small - a second draft, a quick polish. Sometimes they are not.

I recently sold my own debut novel, Roses and Rot. I honestly cannot tell you how many revisions it went through, because of the way I worked on it, but I can tell you it went through three major rewrites. One of those rewrites was so major that I took a 65K word draft, and cut 55K of it. No, that is not a typo. And then I started rewriting. It was hard, it was awful, it was so bad that I ran into a friend when I went out to grab coffee one day, and he suggested I looked so feral that he was worried I might bite someone.

I didn't, but I could have.

There is nothing wrong with deciding not to. Deciding that the shitty parts of a writing career outweigh the good ones, and you are putting down your pen. Deciding that a story, a book is irreparably broken, that trying to fix it would be nothing but a miserable slog towards an exercise in futility, and realizing that there are better things that you can do with your time and energy. When I send a story out, I have a list of markets that I am willing to work with. If I get rejections from all of those markets, the story goes in the drawer.

But if you're going to make that decision, make sure you are making it because it's the right thing for you at that time, not because you think that things should be easier, that no one else ever hears the words "I'm sorry, it's not right for us at this time," that no one ever does three or five or seventeen drafts to get things right.

Because we all do.


  1. May I quote e.e. cummings?

    Farrar & Rinehart
    Simon & Schuster
    Limited Editions
    Harcourt, Brace
    Random House
    Equinox Press
    Smith & Haas
    Viking Press

    Now, when you wrote "There is nothing wrong with deciding not to" for a moment I thought you were still talking about biting someone.

  2. Thank you. It's frustrating as hell to get rejection after rejection, but you're right, there is a sort of comfort knowing that everyone has to go through it.

    Good luck with your new novel!

  3. Thanks for writing this. I accept it without revision.

  4. Dear Kat,

    My client sent this to me, her literary agent. Bravo - we all need to remember to trust OUR instincts, and believe in the voices we invest our time in.


    Kimberley Cameron