Tag Archives: rejections

Rejection: Everybody Hurts Sometimes

Rarely Oftentimes, the writing life feels like an uphill climb. First comes the Dear Sir or Madam rejection, then the personalized rejection. Then, the editor gives you personal feedback and/or reasons why they couldn’t publish your work. After that, you cry into a Blue Bonnet-sized bucket of chocolate ice cream and ask the gods why you can’t just be good enough, already. All of that time, all of that work! What you wouldn’t do for a hot, luscious, sexy, multi-paged contract in your inbox. You are the Charles Barkley of the writing world: pretty good, just not good enough to win a championship. You’re a Baby Ruth when all you want is to be a Snickers bar.

I know it may be hard to believe (har har), but you’re not alone. You’re actually in really good company.

Every now and then Pretty much every week or so, I read about a classic or popular book that had been rejected a bajillion times by every publisher on the planet until one said yes. Here is a list of those books, just for you to keep handy. May it bless you and keep you, and may it help pry your fingers off of the tub of Rocky Road.

1. Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. Rejected 140 times, one publisher claiming it was “too positive.”

2. Dubliners by James Joyce. Rejected 22 times, only sold 379 copies in the first year (James Joyce bought 120 of them).

3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Rejected 121 times.

4. Carrie by Stephen King. Rejected 30 times. We have Tabitha King to thank for it seeing the light of day, as she dug it out of the trash when King threw it away.

5. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. Rejected 38 times. Mitchell won a Pulitzer for her efforts.

6. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. Rejected 26 times. Awarded a Newbery Medal.

7. Anything by C.S. Lewis. Lewis amassed over 800 rejections before selling a single piece of writing.

8. The Diary of Anne Frank. Rejected 15 times. Recieved the editorial comment, “This girl doesn’t, it seems to me, have a special perception or feeling which would lift that book above the curiosity level.”

9. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter. After receiving so many rejections, Potter was forced to publish the book herself.

But my favorite story of all time goes to Dune. You can read an interesting story from Frederik Pohl here, but here’s the abridged version of Dune‘s publishing history. Frank Herbert spent years trying to get a publisher to pick up Dune, and received about 20 rejections. After years and lots of revisions, he sold the book to a small publisher that was known for mechanical manuals for automobiles and motorcycles. It’s now one of the most celebrated science fiction novels of all time.

Keep your head up, and keep on going. You really don’t know when or from where your big break is going to come.

And the winner is …..

And the winner is ….

Not you!

What happened? You’ve worked on your craft for tens of thousands, hundreds of hundred thousand words. You’ve gone to workshops, read every blog, every book on craft you can find. By now you know what the pros say and you can teach the writing courses just as well. And yet, the podium still eludes you.

Then there’s Writer X gracing the podium. Her writing isn’t as crisp. Her wrinkles of profound thought aren’t as deep. And she’s much newer at the game. So why was her work chosen over yours?

As co-editor of the Shanghai Steam Anthology, I’ve had to read well crafted and poorly crafted stories. Some writers had great ideas but needed to hone their writing skills. Others wrote prose well enough but the story lacked tension, the story arc was incomplete, the dialogue didn’t work, it lacked theme/focus or the historical homework wasn’t done.

Then there were the stories which survived the first round of cuts. Those which had that extra something. Some would need some revision, others editing while the best ones required no work.

What!!!!!! you exclaim. Some needing revision are in the final round? What about the ones with the well crafted prose that you denied? Why weren’t they chosen for editorial revision?

The answer is simple – besides being decently written, these stories are memorable. Despite their flaws, I was engaged to the end. Every story in the last round evokes an emotional response whether it’s of laughter, amusement, bitter sweetness, feeling defeated, cheering a hero, being horrified, melancholy, elation, and so on. It may be quietly engaging as in a romantic tragedy or a simple rendering of a thought provoking moment.

The emotional response I’m describing is not about liking or disliking a character. It’s about the story itself. Am I left feeling optimistic, laughing, amused by the clever turn of events or am I saddened, horrified, forced to reflect on the human condition? And does that story stay with me long after I’ve read it? Does it have emotional resonance?

The story, like every character in it, has its own voice – its own drama, its own growth, its own ability to draw readers in and not let them go. That voice carries the story’s emotional resonance which is framed by the promise made at its beginning and is concluded or addressed by the end.

We understand that the story arc is an important backbone for a story with a beginning, middle and end which includes challenges, climax and denouement. Characters cleverly doing their thing without purpose or meaning is not enough. How do you want the reader to understand the world you’ve created when the story is done? How do you want him to feel? Happy? Sad? Thoughtful? Hopeful? Depressed? Scared to death? Satisfied for running a marathon? Cheering that the good guy beat the bad guy?

Once you understand what emotions you want the reader to experience, your writing voice will be clear and the story’s emotional resonance will reflect that. Emotionally, the reader is compelled to read the story through to its bitter, joyful, triumphant, tragic or thoughtful end. You don’t want them feeling emotionally flat and wondering so what?

 Good writing counts for a lot in submissions for contests, anthologies or publishing. But no matter how well crafted the words are, how strong the plot and characters appear to be, without emotional resonance the story isn’t memorable. It’s the little aha! I get it! or what a ride! feeling a reader experiences that makes it memorable. That aha! may be a good chortle, a reflective moment, celebration of the protagonist’s victory or grumping at a character’s stubbornness. Whatever the aha! is, every reader craves it and every story needs it to be memorable.

 Now when you revise and edit your work or when others critique it for you, ask them: How does the story make you feel?, Does it stay with you after you’ve finished it?, If you had strong feelings about the story, tell me why. If not, what does it need/why does it feel flat to you? These are hard questions to ask and answer but knowing this will take your story to the next level and make it resonate with readers.