On Submission, Self-Esteem, and Persistence

Recently I was talking with some friends, also writers, about the submission process. Specifically we were discussing the impact of rejection letters on our psychology and productivity.

Rejection is something that writers, especially young writers desperate to get their foot in the door of the publishing industry, often talk about sardonically. We joke about piles of rejection letters (or inboxes overflowing with rejection emails) and talk about submissions in much the same way a shipwrecked sailor might talk about tossing a message in a bottle out to sea. This particular conversation was a bit rare. There were a fair number of self-deprecating jokes, but the overall tone of the discussion was seriously interested in the real effect of rejection on writing life.

Here’s the thing, as a writer you are going to receive rejection letters. No question. Anyone who has been trying to sell their writing to major markets knows this. Even established professionals have their submissions rejected on a semi-regular basis. It is simply the case that there are more people writing and trying to be published than there are available slots in the major publications/publishing houses. So, if you are going to write and submit your work for publication, you will receive more–far more–rejection letters than acceptances.

With that in mind, it genuinely matters how one reacts to rejection. Out of curiosity, I looked over my submission history and discovered that I have received approximately 80 rejections in the last three years. In that same time, I  have managed one contest win, one professional sale, and three unpaid publications in that time. That’s sixteen rejections per acceptance (which is actually a better ratio than I was anticipating).

Granted, I am a brand-spanking-new writer, not yet divested of my amateur status by SFWA standards, so it should be no surprise that I get rejected a lot. But, if anything, that makes the question of how I experience and react to rejection more interesting and pertinent. If I’m ever going to get anywhere with this, I had better be able to handle bad news.

And I react badly.

My default after receiving a rejection is to spiral down. First drafts feel particularly awful, and attempts at revision are less productive and more an exercise in self-castigation as I attacked my own work with a merciless red-pen and insufficient self-confidence to stand up to the viciousness of my internal critic.

What I have discovered, however, is that resubmitting rejected work helps to arrest this downward spiral. It interrupts the cycle of frustration and substitutes thoughts like “Of course I’m not good enough yet” for thoughts like “Well, that story wasn’t right for that market, but maybe it’s better suited for this one.”

Rejection still stings. It still feeds the darker impulses of the inner critic. But that frustration can be channeled into resubmission, which is forward motion, which feels productive, even if that story never sells.

And if winning Writers of the Future taught me anything, it’s that persistence, as much as skill and talent, pays off.

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